by Joel Carillet
A boy learns indelible lessons about time and life.
“‘Oars! Oars!’ he intensely whispered, seizing the helm—‘grip your oars, and clutch your souls, now! My God, men, stand by!’”
Herman Melville’s Ahab had never been to Papua New Guinea, and pursuing a whale was not really akin to investigating a plane wreck, but the words he uttered were dead on. It was May 1986, and I was twelve years old. My introduction to the world outside America had begun.
Papua New Guinea was ten years old and still grappling with what it meant to be a nation in 1986. Its five million citizens spoke some 800 languages, and its towns and villages hosted more missionaries than tourists. Its stamps celebrated traditional skirts, but also Queen Elizabeth’s birthday. Its markets were laid out lazily in the shade, swollen with ripe tropical fruit sold by betel-nut-chewing mothers nursing their babies. Tropical, laid back, young—Papua New Guinea was what some called paradise.
But it was another title that I heard more often. “Land of the Unexpected,” read the Air Niugini posters, stunningly illustrated with slender palm trees, a thatched-roof hut by the sea, and smiling locals. But they could just have honestly depicted belching volcanoes, earthquake damage, or a gang of unemployed youths sporting machetes and homemade shotguns just before raping someone. Paradise is never postcard-perfect.
From the provincial capital of Madang my father and I flew aboard a single-engine Cessna into the heart of the country. From the grass airstrip we took a motorized canoe several hours up the log-infested Sogeram River, arriving in the village just before sunset, where we were welcomed by an American missionary who called this remote corner of the world home. It was a typical village: kids wearing ragged second-hand shorts or skirts, angled palm trees, huts elevated on posts, topless women cooking sago, insatiable mosquitoes, infected sores, debilitating disease.
A couple days after arriving we received a radio message from Madang: The U.S. Embassy had received a report of a downed aircraft about fifteen miles from our location. Would we be willing to hike to the site and confirm the crash and then, if possible, determine if the plane was American?
When World War II finally ended in 1945, the remains of 78,000 U.S. military personnel had yet to be either identified or recovered. Sixty years later the search continues, and each year remains are found and brought home. The Pentagon estimates that more than 250 aircraft are still unaccounted for in Papua New Guinea alone, where the jungle gives up its war ghosts reluctantly and will surely never reveal them all. But when it does the army dispatches a team from the Central Identification Laboratory in Hawaii. A typical recovery operation might include medics, forensic anthropologists, an explosive ordnance disposal technician, a photographer, and mortuary affairs specialists. But first the wreckage needs to be confirmed, and at least on one occasion it was a twelve-year-old and his dad whom the government asked to investigate.
When we set off from the Sogeram with a local guide, the morning fog had yet to give way to the sun, and smoke from breakfast fires hung low around the houses. Hoarse roosters were still issuing their cries. Being off the power grid (as was most of the country), the village pulsed to a rhythm I had not known in the West—it woke slowly, almost gently, and in a way that connected you to thousands of years of human history. It was a culture carefully attuned to the position of the sun instead of the product of wires strung to poles. Here I tasted a forgotten simplicity (not to be confused with easiness), a new intimacy.
I also learned that a remote village can seem like the center of civilization once you exchange it for the jungle. It took only a moment for the village to vanish behind us. Gone was the subtle comfort of numbers, the smoke which signaled community, the land cleared of trees so that light could reach earth. The jungle canopy was an impenetrable shroud, and in its shadow people ventured but did not dwell. It belonged to the wild pigs and cassowaries, the hornbills and cockatoos, the pythons and legions of insects. It did not belong to people.
The path was littered with leeches. Looking like black inchworms, they stood upright in the wet foliage along the trail, as if eager to praise those who passed by. They latched hungrily onto legs, however, even slipping deep into sneakers, and found their way to other parts of the body as well. We paused often to pluck or burn them off.
We stumbled over roots and waded through shallow swamps, but always we charged forward. I had never walked thirty some miles in a single day, but we had to reach the plane by midday if we were to return to the village by nightfall. About an hour before reaching the site we emerged from the jungle, squinting into an intense sunlight that beat down on thatched roofs, naked children, grunting pigs, and baby cassowaries that ran around looking very confused at our presence. I was the youngest white person many, perhaps all, had ever seen. The village was tiny, home to maybe a dozen families. It was also remote, even more than the one we had slept in last night, which at least had river access to the outside world.
Someone brought us each a stick of sugarcane. The ultra-sweet juice, as well as the act of chewing hard to get at it, refreshed us. We also shared a papaya. The most interesting moment of our short pause in the village, however, was meeting an old man who, with tremendous gesticulation and excited eyes, relived the day he saw two planes fighting in the sky. A red circle was painted on one plane, he said, and in the struggle it exploded not far above the jungle canopy. The entire village was terrified and for a time moved away from the area.
We left the village with a better idea of what to expect at the site. The wreckage would not be intact and it was likely Japanese. Still, I wondered. All morning the image of a weathered skeleton crumbled in a rusted-out cockpit had stayed fast in my boyish mind, and I wasn’t yet willing to let it go.
Several weeks earlier I had visited a different village and hiked to another wreck that rested deep in the jungle. It was American and the site had already been excavated and the airmen’s remains recovered. The plane was partially intact, indicating that the jungle canopy had broken its fall. A giant propeller lay twisted to one side of the fuselage and was planted in the earth, as if it were standing guard over the rest of the wreckage. But perhaps the most moving sight was the white star that still clung to the fuselage. It had faded, but its shape had not changed at all, nor did the symbolism behind it. This was a piece of America which, like the temples of Angkor in Cambodia, was now forever wed to the jungle.
Village children accompanied us to the site and crawled all over the aluminum hulk with typical agility and balance. Several dug into the soil and pulled out corroded .50-calibre cartridges to offer me as a gift. They were only children, but they knew that once my country had fought here, and they were keen to connect me to the wreck.
This same week, perhaps on a morning I heard Johnny Cash’s voice groaning from a villager’s shortwave radio, the United States bombed Libya. A few days later, when a twin-engine prop plane circled our village, people ran to us with an urgent question: Do you know who is in that plane? No, we said. Moments later many fled deep into the jungle, certain that Libya had come to bomb the village since PNG was a friend of the United States. It happened in the 1940s with Japan, so why not now?
Paradise, I learned, has a history, and in ways one least expects it affects the lives of its people.
“Hap bilong balus!” a guide exclaimed, pointing to a barely discernable scrap of metal that must have belonged to the plane. We had arrived. For half an hour we crisscrossed the area, examining debris. A propeller sat off alone among vines and was the only clue that these hundreds of screws, rings, pipes and scraps belonged to an aircraft. We confirmed it was not American by locating a mechanical part—the specs were written in Japanese.
It was a long hike back to the Sogeram, made even longer by the several-pound chunk of metal I felt compelled to carry with me. Our guide—cut like a gymnast and physically unfazed by thirty-miles-in-a-day—moved at warp speed. Perhaps convinced that “white skins” couldn’t move fast enough to make it back by sunset—and Papua New Guineans are loath to travel by night in the jungle—he had urged us to spend the night in the village near the site. It wasn’t a bad idea, but the village on the Sogeram was expecting us and would worry if we didn’t show. And so with rubbery legs we emerged from the jungle at dusk. Civilization had seldom looked so attractive—it had a chair for relaxing, a river for bathing, and it was clear of leeches.
Days later, Dad lay sprawled out in the dugout, reading a National Geographic Traveler article on some European city, as we motored back to the airstrip en route to Madang. We rounded a bend and disturbed a crocodile that, like us, was engaged in the prehistoric art of sunbathing. Just as the jungle consumed wrecks, the river consumed entire trees, sweeping them off their banks during rainy season and driving them downstream till they lodged in awkward positions. But in the land of the unexpected, it was not just machine and tree that were consumed. Riding with us in the canoe was a healthy sixteen-year-old boy who had one of the brightest smiles in the village. I would never see that smile again—several weeks later he would die of cerebral malaria.
Late in the afternoon the Cessna touched down in Madang. A picturesque coastal town with a population of 25,000, Madang’s significance at the moment rested firmly in the availability of French fries, cold Coke, and electric fans and lights—things you didn’t have in the bush. Cars rolled down lazy streets, giant fruit bats screamed from their pine tree perches, and a modest supermarket rented videos. The local theater, a Quonset hut built at the end of World War II, announced the upcoming feature: To Live and Die in LA.
But in the end, to be honest, it was the sea that made the town great. The tiny islands dotting the harbor, the vibrant colors of fish and coral below, the towering volcanic island visible far to the north, the silent fisherman in an outrigger canoe, the occasional foreign ship filling its hull with a cargo of copra—it was the sea that contained these things.
And it was the sea, so vast and undefined, that mirrored back to me the depth and mystery of my own spirit. Madang’s lighthouse, which rises at the harbor’s entrance, was dedicated in 1959 to the Australian men who stayed behind enemy lines during the war to observe Japanese ship and plane movements. I went here to observe as well, but I saw other things on the horizon. I saw my future being shaped by my present—by people and wrecks, rivers and fruit, by things unexpected. I saw that time darts as quickly as a spooked fish, and that sometimes our spirit rumbles with the terrible beauty of a volcano. I saw also that there is such a thing as a human hull, which our years generously, and sometimes painfully, load with experience. And I saw that in moving forward we cut through uncharted waters that will never be explored in full. All this to say, I saw what made Ahab cry, “Grip your oars, and clutch your souls, now! My God, men, stand by!”
I was twelve years old, in a place some called paradise.
Joel Carillet has a master’s degree in Church History and has spent much of the past six years working overseas. He taught at a college in Ukraine, worked for a study abroad program in Egypt, did human rights work in the West Bank, and spent fourteen months traveling overland from Beijing to Istanbul. Among his memorable experiences traveling was listening to Henry Kissinger talk politics with a White House official as they all stood before their respective urinals in a Washington, D.C. hotel.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.